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July 6, 2010

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Comet in the dock for store death

Electrical retail giant Comet has been fined £75,000 after a contractor fell through a rooflight at its Wrexham store.

Comet Group Plc contracted Steven Smith, who was director of Wrexham Roof Services Ltd, to clear guttering and replace leaking rooflights at its store in Mount Street. Smith had sub-contracted Paul Alker, 33, to help carry out the repairs.

On 7 June 2007, Mr Alker was walking across the roof when he stepped on a rooflight and fell 25 feet on to the store floor. He sustained fractured ribs, a broken collarbone, and soft-tissue damage. He died in hospital five days later owing to his injuries.

The HSE issued an Improvement Notice against Comet in August 2007, which required the company to improve its contractor management systems. HSE inspector Debbie John revealed that Mr Alker hadn’t been provided with any equipment to prevent falls, and no attempts had been made to cover the fragile rooflights.

She said: “Comet failed to ensure that its contractor had taken steps to prevent falls through the rooflights, ultimately leading to the death of a worker.

“The law is clear that companies must ensure contractors are competent to do the work they are hired to do, and they need to understand their responsibilities. A safe system of work must be agreed and the company should monitor contractors to make sure they undertake work safely, as agreed. My thoughts are with the family at this difficult time.”

Comet appeared at Mold Crown Court on 5 July and pleaded guilty to breaching s3(1) of the HSWA 1974. It was ordered to pay full costs of £24,446.

In mitigation, Comet said it had no previous convictions and had fully cooperated with the investigation. It has subsequently reviewed its procedures for selecting and monitoring contractors. It now has a process in place to assess the competency of contractors and it also ensures that their on-site movements are monitored closely.

In November 2007, Steven Smith was jailed for two and a half years in relation to the incident. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, s37(1) of the HSWA 1974, and a further charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice – for hiring safety equipment immediately after the accident and planting it at the scene.

Inspector John concluded: “This incident could have been avoided if the rooflights at the Wrexham store had been protected and Mr Alker had been provided with appropriate safety equipment.”

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